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Multiculturalism in Australia


Multiculturalism in Australia

Multiculturalism in Australia has a special cultural status.

Many policies supporting differing cultures have been put in place such as the formation of the Special Broadcasting Service.[1] While the White Australia Policy was dismantled after World War II by various changes to immigration policy, the full political introduction of official policies encouraging and supporting multiculturalism did not develop until 1972. Contact between people of different cultures in Australia has been characterised by tolerance and engagement, but have also occasionally resulted in conflict. Australia's diverse migrant communities have brought with them food, lifestyle and cultural practices, which have been absorbed into mainstream Australian culture.[2][3]


  • History 1
    • Historical perspective 1.1
    • Current policies 1.2
  • Impact 2
    • Statistics 2.1
    • Social impact of immigration 2.2
  • Projects 3
  • Critique 4
    • Howard government 4.1
    • Intellectual critique 4.2
  • See also 5
  • References 6
  • Further reading 7


Historical perspective

Prior to settlement by Europeans, the Australian continent was not a single nation, but hosted many different Aboriginal cultures and between 200 and 400 active languages at any one time. According to the 2006 census some 150 indigenous languages are still spoken. The present nation of Australia resulted from a process of immigration intended to fill the continent (also excluding potential rivals to the British Empire). The continent was regarded as essentially empty. Settlers from the United Kingdom, after 1800 including Ireland, were the earliest people that were not native to the continent to live in Australia. Dutch colonisation and possible visits to Australia by explorers and/or traders from China, did not lead to permanent settlement. Until 1901, Australia existed as a group of independent British settler colonies.

The Immigration Restriction Act 1901 was the first act of Australian Federal parliament, also known informally as the White Australia policy. This is the term used for the policy of restricted non-European immigration to Australia from 1901 to 1973. Such a policy limited the ethnic and cultural diversity of the immigrant population, and in theory facilitated the cultural assimilation of the immigrants, since they would come from related ethnic and cultural backgrounds.

The White Australia policy was an attempt to preserve the British ethno-cultural identity of the Australian nation. It was official policy for much of the 20th century to promote European immigration and to keep out those who did not fit the European, predominately Anglo-Celtic, character of Australian society. As the Twentieth century progressed and the number of migrants from the United Kingdom became insufficient to meet labour shortages, immigrants came increasingly from other parts of Europe, such as Italy, Greece, Germany, the Netherlands, and the former Yugoslavia.[4]

People whose parents were both born in Australia percentage of the population in Australia divided geographically by statistical local area, as of the 2011 census

Following the initial moves of the Whitlam Labor government in 1973, further official national multicultural policies were implemented by Malcolm Fraser's Liberal Government in 1978.[5] The Labor Government of Bob Hawke continued with these policies during the 1980s and early 1990s, and were further supported by Paul Keating up to his electoral defeat 1996. CALD (or Culturally and Linguistually Diverse) policies continue to be implemented at all levels of government and public service, such as medical support systems which cater specifically to non-English speaking residents.[6]

Current policies

The meaning of multiculturalism has changed significantly since its formal introduction to Australia. Originally it was understood by the mainstream population as a need for acceptance that many members of the Australian community originally came from different cultures and still had ties to it.[7] However, it came to mean the rights of migrants within mainstream Australia to express their cultural identity. It is now often used to refer to the notion that people in Australia have multiple cultural or ethnic backgrounds. The Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs in India and Australia estimated that, in 2005, 25% of the Australian workforce was born outside of Australia and 40% had at least one parent born outside of Australia.

According to the National Agenda for a Multicultural Australia, the Australian government is concerned with three broad policy areas:[8]

  • Cultural identity
  • Social justice
  • Economic efficiency



According to the 2011 census, 26% of the population were born overseas.[9] Of the population born overseas, 82% lived in the capital cities.[9]

In terms of net migration per capita, Australia is ranked 18th (2008 Data) ahead of Canada, the USA and most of Europe.[10]

The top ten religions in Australia account for less than 63% of the population.[11]

Social impact of immigration

The overall level of immigration to Australia has grown during the last decades. Net overseas immigrants increased from 30,000 in 1993[12] to 118,000 in 2003-04.[13] During the 2004-05, total 123,424 people immigrated to Australia.

Of them, 17,736 were from Africa, 54,804 from Asia, 21,131 from Oceania, 18,220 from United Kingdom, 1,506 from South America, and 2,369 from Eastern Europe. 131,000 people migrated to Australia in 2005-06[14] and migration target for 2006-07 was 144,000.[15]

In 2008-09 about 300,000 new migrants are expected to arrive in Australia, the highest number since World War II.[16]


Numerous projects by government and non-government agencies have been established to further the understanding of multiculturalism in Australia. The national Capital city, Canberra in the Australian Capital Territory, has developed a tradition of the National Multicultural Festival, held over a week in February.[17] Additionally, Canberra has numerous other inter-cultural events, such as the Thai Food Festival held at Wat Dhammadharo,[18] Canberra's Thai temple, on 2009-04-19.

In addition to the National Multicultural Festival, there is also Harmony Day which seeks to promote a tolerant and culturally diverse society.


Howard government

The election of John Howard's Liberal-National Coalition government in 1996 was a major watershed for Australian multiculturalism. Howard had long been a critic of multiculturalism, releasing his One Australia policy in the late 1980s which called for a reduction in Asian immigration - a policy he later retracted, citing his then position as wrong. Shortly after the new government took office, the new independent member Pauline Hanson made her maiden speech in which she was highly critical of multiculturalism, saying that a multicultural society could never be strong. Hanson went on to form her own political party One Nation. One Nation campaigned strongly against official multiculturalism, arguing that it represented "a threat to the very basis of the Australian culture, identity and shared values" and that there was "no reason why migrant cultures should be maintained at the expense of our shared, national culture.".[19]

Despite many calls for Howard to censure Hanson, his response was to state that her speech indicated a new freedom of expression in Australia on such issues, because he believed strongly in freedom of speech, a tenet of Australian society which allows people of different ethnic background to express themselves. Rather than official multiculturalism, Howard advocated instead the idea of a "shared national identity", albeit one strongly grounded in certain recognisably Anglo-Celtic Australian themes, such as "mateship" and a "fair go" which are principles many immigrants are attracted to. While Howard changed the name of the Department of Immigration, Multiculturalism and Indigenous Affairs to the Department of Immigration and Citizenship, the policy of multiculturalism has remained intact, with the Howard Government introducing expanded dual-citizenship rights.

A Practical Reference to Religious Diversity for Operational Police and Emergency Services was a publication of the Australasian Police Multicultural Advisory Bureau designed to offer guidance to police and emergency services personnel on how religious affiliation can affect their contact with the public. The first edition was published in 1999.[20][21][22] The first edition covered Buddhist, Hindu, Islamic, Jewish and Sikh faiths with participation of representatives of the various religions.[23] The second edition added Christian, Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander religions and the Bahá'í Faith to the list of religions was published in 2002.[24]

Intellectual critique

The earliest academic critics of multiculturalism in Australia were the philosophers Lachlan Chipman[25] and Frank Knopfelmacher,[26] sociologist Tanya Birrell[27] and the political scientist Raymond Sestito.[28] Chipman and Knopfelmacher were concerned with threats to social cohesion, while Birrell's concern was that multiculturalism obscures the social costs associated with large scale immigration that fall most heavily on the most recently arrived and unskilled immigrants. Sestito's arguments were based on the role of political parties. He argued that political parties were instrumental in pursuing multicultural policies, and that these policies would put strain on the political system and would not promote better understanding in the Australian community.[29][30]

Historian Geoffrey Blainey, achieved mainstream recognition as a critic of multiculturalism when he wrote that multiculturalism threatened to transform Australia into a "cluster of tribes". In his 1984 book All for Australia, Blainey criticized multiculturalism for tending to emphasise the rights of ethnic minorities at the expense of the majority population and for being "anti-British", despite the British being the largest group to have migrated to Australia. According to Blainey, such policies created divisions and threatened national cohesion. He argued that "the evidence is clear that many multicultural societies have failed and that the human cost of the failure has been high" and warned that "we should think very carefully about the perils of converting Australia into a giant multicultural laboratory for the assumed benefit of the peoples of the world."[31]

In one of his numerous criticisms of multiculturalism, Blainey wrote:

For the millions of Australians who have no other nation to fall back upon, multiculturalism is almost an insult. It is divisive. It threatens social cohesion. It could, in the long-term, also endanger Australia's military security because it sets up enclaves which in a crisis could appeal to their own homelands for help.

Blainey remained a persistent critic of multiculturalism into the 1990s, denouncing multiculturalism as "morally, intellectually and economically ... a sham."

Historian John Hirst argued that while multiculturalism might serve the needs of ethnic politics and the demands of certain ethnic groups for government money to be used solely for the promotion of their separate ethnic identity, it is a perilous concept on which to found policy.[32] Hirst identified contradictory statements by political leaders that suggested the word was a nonsense concept. These included the policies of Prime Minister Bob Hawke, a proponent of multiculturalism while at the same time promoting a citizenship campaign and stressing the common elements of our culture,[33] and anti-multiculturalism statements by Prime Minister Howard, who aroused the ire of multiculturalists who thought that he was suggesting closing down Italian restaurants and prohibiting the speaking of the Italian language when he proposed no such thing.[32]

According to Hirst, multiculturalism denies the existence of a host Australian culture:

Insofar as multiculturalism makes what it calls 'Anglo-Celts' the equivalent of Italians and Turks, it denies the very notion of a host. [Multiculturalists assert] we are all immigrants of many cultures, contributing to a multicultural society. This may serve the needs of ethnic politics. As a serious historical or sociological analysis it is nonsense. To found policy on it may be perilous.[32]

Critics have argued that multiculturalism was introduced as official policy in Australia without public support or consultation. According to academic Mark Lopez: "Multiculturalism was developed by a small number of academics, social workers and activists, initially located on the fringe of the political arena of immigration, settlement and welfare. The authors responsible for versions of the ideology were also principal actors in the struggle to advance their beliefs and make them government policy". Lopez asserts that through "core groups and activists' sympathisers and contacts ... multiculturalism became government policy ... because the multiculturalists and their supporters were able to influence the ideological content of the Minister's sources of policy ... Contemporary public opinion polls implied... in the general population, a widespread resentment, or a lack of interest, of the kinds of ideas advanced by multiculturalists. ... The original constituency for multiculturalism was small; popular opinion was an obstacle, not an asset, for the multiculturalists." Furthermore, according to Lopez: "Multiculturalism was not simply picked up and appreciated and implemented by policy makers, government and the major political parties ... [I]n every episode that resulted in the progress of multiculturalism, the effectiveness of the political lobbyists was a decisive factor. ... [Multiculturalism was] tirelessly promoted and manoeuvered forward".[5] However, the above argument have been contested by others, who note that "Government sponsored conferences were in fact held at least once a year from 1950 to discuss immigration issues and to provide information for both government and the Australian public".[34]

Critics associated with the Centre for Population and Urban Research at Monash University have argued that both Right and Left factions in the Australian Labor Party have adopted a multicultural stance for the purposes of increasing their support within the party.[35] A manifestation of this embrace of multiculturalism has been the creation of ethnic branches within the Labor Party and ethnic branch stacking.[36]

Following the upsurge of support for the One Nation Party in 1996, Lebanese-born Australian anthropologist Ghassan Hage published a critique in 1997 of Australian multiculturalism in the book White Nation.[37] Drawing on theoretical frameworks from Whiteness studies, Jacques Lacan and Pierre Bourdieu, Hage examined a range of everyday discourses that implicated both anti-multiculturalists and pro-multiculturalists alike.

Political ethologist Frank Salter, author of On Genetic Interests: Family, Ethnicity, and Humanity in an Age of Mass Migration, has argued against the principle of a multicultural society, asserting that "multi-ethnic societies are often confronted with the problem of discrimination and group conflict." According to Salter:

Cross-cultural comparisons reveal the wisdom of Australia's first prime minister Edmund Barton who believed that ethnic homogeneity must be the cornerstone of Australian nation-building. More ethnically homogeneous nations are better able to build public goods, are more democratic, less corrupt, have higher productivity and less inequality, are more trusting and care more for the disadvantaged, develop social and economic capital faster, have lower crime rates, are more resistant to external shocks, and are better global citizens, for example by giving more foreign aid. Moreover, they are less prone to civil war, the greatest source of violent death in the twentieth century.[38]

Salter has linked multiculturalism to growing ethnic socio-economic stratification, stating:

Inequality in Australia increasingly has an ethnic face. Aborigines continue to occupy the lowest rung on the socio-economic ladder. Despite the points system for assessing immigrants, some ethnic minorities have high rates of unemployment and criminality. Many white Australians are losing out to competition from immigrants. Selective public schools show spectacular overrepresentation of Chinese and other Asian students, an imbalance that feeds through to elite universities and thence to the professions. Ethnic socioeconomic stratification is growing as the population becomes more diverse.[39]

Salter has argued that multiculturalism forms "part of an ideological-administrative system that is helping swamp the Australian nation through ethnically diverse immigration." This, in turn, is "putting at risk the nation’s ability to produce the public goods that nations excel in producing: relative cohesion and harmony, public altruism, trust, efficient government and political stability."[39]

In a submission to an Australian federal parliamentary inquiry into multiculturalism, Salter wrote that multiculturalism was one of the reasons behind continuing high immigration levels. In contrast, Salter argues in favour of a "responsible population policy" which takes into account economic and environment limits to continuing immigration.[39] Salter also argues the current model of multiculturalism is flawed as it excludes Australia's historic Anglo-Celtic majority as a legitimate interest group.[39]

Writer Greg Clancy has argued that, since its introduction, multiculturalism has been manipulated for personal and individual group advantage at the expense of Australian society and its institutions. In his book The Conspiracies of Multiculturalism, Clancy linked multiculturalism to corruption, increased crime, a damaged social order, campaigns of public deception, the undermining of national security and threats to free speech.[40] According to Clancy, multiculturalism favours some groups in Australian society over others and that the "multicultural group had a special status developed for them".[40]

In exploring the discourse of multiculturalism others have argued that the threat to social cohesion and national identity have been overstated.[41][42] For instance, Ramakrishan (2013) argues that the "largely European" cultural traditions of the population have been maintained despite greater ethnic diversity.[41] Others have asserted that the emphasis on notions such as 'Identity, citizenship, social cohesion and integration' serves more as a catchphrase rather than pragmatic attempts to address the given issues.[43] Kerkyasharian (2008) argues:

Of course, most of the debate over multiculturalism has nothing to do with actual government policies or laws on cultural diversity. Detractors have no viable policy alternative, other than the imposition of a nebulous set of ‘Australian values’. When pressed to define these values, they will usually cite some broad principles, such as fairness, equality and so on. All well and good – because multiculturalism stands for these same principles.[43]

See also


  1. ^
  2. ^
  3. ^
  4. ^
  5. ^ a b Mark Lopez (2000),The Origins of Multiculturalism in Australian Politics 1945-1975, Melbourne University Press, Carlton South, Victoria (ISBN 0-522-84895-8)
  6. ^
  7. ^ Lyle Allan (1983), 'A Selective Annotated Bibliography of Multiculturalism', in Social Alternatives (University of Queensland), Vol.3, No.3, July, page 65.
  8. ^
  9. ^ a b
  10. ^
  11. ^
  12. ^ Australian Bureau of Statistics, International migration
  13. ^ Australian Bureau of Statistics, 3101.0 Australian Demographic Statistics
  14. ^ Settler numbers on the rise
  15. ^ Australian Immigration Fact Sheet 20. Migration Program Planning Levels
  16. ^
  17. ^ National Multicultural Festival, accessed 2009-04-19
  18. ^ Wat Dhammadharo, accessed 2009-04-19
  19. ^
  20. ^
  21. ^
  22. ^
  23. ^
  24. ^
  25. ^ Lachlan Chipman (1980), 'The Menace of Multiculturalism,' in Quadrant, Vol. 24, No. 10, October, pp.3-6
  26. ^ Frank Knopfelmacher (1982), 'The case against multi-culturalism,' in Robert Manne (ed.), The New Conservatism in Australia, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, Victoria, pages 40-66
  27. ^ Tanya Birrell (1978), 'Migration and the Dilemmas of Multiculturalism,' in Robert Birrell and Colin Hay (eds.), The Immigration Issue in Australia, A Sociological Symposium, Department of Sociology, School of Social Sciences, La Trobe University, Bundoora, Victoria, pages 132-146
  28. ^ Raymond Sestito (1982), The Politics of Multiculturalism, The Centre for Independent Studies, Sydney, New South Wales (ISBN 0-949769-06-1)
  29. ^ Raymond Sestito (1982), The Politics of Multiculturalism, The Centre for Independent Studies, Sydney, New South Wales (ISBN 0-949769-06-1), pages 30-36
  30. ^ Lyle Allan (1983), 'A Selective Annotated Bibliography of Multiculturalism', in Social Alternatives (University of Queensland), Vol.3, No.3, July, page 68
  31. ^ Blainey, Geoffrey (1984). All For Australia, North Ryde, NSW: Methuen Haynes (ISBN 0-454-00828-7)
  32. ^ a b c John Hirst, Sense and Nonsense in Australian History, Black Inc. Agenda, Melbourne (ISBN 978-0-9775949-3-1), page22
  33. ^ John Hirst, Sense and Nonsense in Australian History, Black Inc. Agenda, Melbourne (ISBN 978-0-9775949-3-1), page23
  34. ^
  35. ^ Ernest Healy (1993), 'Ethnic ALP Branches - The Balkanisation of Labor,' in People and Place Vol.1, No.4, Pages 37-43
  36. ^ Ernest Healy (1993), 'Ethnic ALP Branches - The Balkanisation of Labor,' in People and Place Vol.1, No.4, Pages 37
  37. ^ "Hage, G. (1997) White Nation: Fantasies of White supremacy in a multicultural society, Annandale, NSW: Pluto Press (ISBN 1-86403-056-9)"
  38. ^ Frank Salter, "When Diversity Meets Ethnic Kinship: Interesting Times?", The Independent Australian, Issue No. 16, Spring 2008.
  39. ^ a b c d
  40. ^ a b Clancy, Greg (2006). The Conspiracies of Multiculturalism: The Betrayal that Divided Australia, Gordon, NSW: Sunda Publications
  41. ^ a b
  42. ^
  43. ^ a b

Further reading

  • Allan, Lyle (1983), 'A Selective Annotated Bibliography of Multiculturalism', in Social Alternatives (University of Queensland), Vol.3, No.3, July, pages 65–72.
  • Blainey, Geoffrey (1984), All For Australia, Methuen Haynes, North Ryde, New South Wales. ISBN 0-454-00828-7
  • Bostock, William W. (1977), Alternatives of Ethnicity, Cat and Fiddle Press, Hobart, Tasmania. ISBN 0-85853-030-9
  • Clancy, Greg (2006), The Conspiracies of Multiculturalism. The Betrayal That Divided Australia, Sunda Publications, Gordon, New South Wales. ISBN 0-9581564-1-7
  • Hirst, John (2005), Sense and Nonsense in Australian History, Black Inc. Agenda, Melbourne, Victoria. ISBN 978-0-9775949-3-1
  • Lopez, Mark (2000), The Origins of Multiculturalism in Australian Politics 1945-1975, Melbourne University Press, Carlton South, Victoria. ISBN 0-522-84895-8
  • Sestito, Raymond (1982), The Politics of Multiculturalism, Centre for Independent Studies, St Leonards, New South Wales. ISBN 0-949769-06-1
  • Soutphommasane, Tim (2012) Don't go back to where you came from : why multiculturalism works, Sydney, N.S.W.: NewSouth Pub., ISBN 9781742233369
  • Theophanous, Andrew C. (1995), Understanding Multiculturalism and Australian Identity, Elikia Books, Carlton South, Victoria. ISBN 1-875335-04-8
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